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Report says LANL safety problems endanger U.S. arsenal

A new report by the Center for Public Integrity highlights a history of safety and reliability problems involving plutonium work at Los Alamos National Laboratory – particularly in the area of “criticality,” the prevention of spontaneous nuclear chain reactions – as the lab is under orders to ramp up production of the plutonium “pits” that serve as triggers for nuclear bombs.

The CPI, a nonprofit investigative news group, reported that Los Alamos last year violated nuclear industry rules for guarding against criticality accidents three times more often than the U.S. Energy Department’s 23 other nuclear installations combined.

CPI’s article, which has gained national attention this week, highlights a previously unreported 2011 incident in which LANL technicians placed eight rods of plutonium side by side for a photograph to celebrate the crafting of the rods. But placing the rods so close together could have led to a criticality accident and violates “Physics 101 for nuclear scientists,” the report says.

Between 2005 and 2016, the lab’s lapses in criticality safety have been criticized in more than 40 reports by government oversight agencies, teams of nuclear safety experts and the lab’s own staff, the CPI found.

The CPI report drew a strong reaction Tuesday from DOE National Nuclear Security Administration’s administrator Frank Klotz, who said the group “attacks the safety culture at Los Alamos National Laboratory (LANL) without offering all of the facts and the full context.”

Klotz said the lab’s private operator, Los Alamos National Security LLC – a consortium including Bechtel and the University of California – has been held accountable for its safety issues.

“From 2013 through 2016, NNSA withheld over $82 million in fee payments as a result of a range of safety and operational issues at Los Alamos,” he said.

“There has not been a nuclear criticality accident at a Department of Energy nuclear facility in nearly 40 years,” Klotz added. “When safety concerns are identified, our focus is to determine the causes, identify corrective actions and minimize recurrence. This focus on continuous improvement is apparent in our safety statistics over the past decade.”

CPI reported that an internal Los Alamos report estimated that a 2013 shut down of plutonium work at Los Alamos costs the government as much as $1.36 million a day in lost productivity.

LANL is currently the only place in the country that plutonium pits can be made, and new pits are part of a hugely expensive plan to improve the nation’s nuclear weapons in coming years.

Los Alamos is under orders to make as many as 80 pits a year by 2027. The United States hasn’t made any new ones since 2011, when LANL completed the last of 29 plutonium cores for Navy submarine missiles. The most ever made at Los Alamos in a year is 11.

As the Journal first reported last week, an NNSA official said at a recent public hearing in Santa Fe that moving plutonium work away from LANL to some other site within the nation’s nuclear weapons complex is among the options now under consideration in an ongoing study.